Saturday, 3 August 2013

Across Asia With A Lowlander: Part 3c: Tashkent (I)

world-map tashkent


This week’s posting has been delayed a little, sorry about that but weekends are busy at the moment whilst the sun is shining. However, here we are, back in the only metropolis of the ‘Stans, the great city of Tashkent, a place where random people just come up to you offering bags of freshly-printed banknotes.

Keep travelling!

Uncle Travelling Matt

Links to all parts of the travelogue

Book 1: Embarking Upon A New Korea

1a: Toyama to Pusan

1b: Pusan

1c: Seoul

1d: The DMZ

1e: Seoul, Incheon and Across the Yellow Sea

Book 2: Master Potter does Fine China

2a: Qingdao

2b: Beijing (I)

2c: Beijing (II)

2d: Beijing (III)

2e: Yinchuan (I)

2f: Yinchuan(II)

2g: Lanzhou

2h: Bingling-si

2i: Xiahe

2j: Lanzhou and Jiayuguan

2k: Jiayuguan

2l: Dunhuang

2m: Urumqi (I)

2n: Urumqi (II)

2o: Urumqi (III)

Book 3: Steppe to the Left, Steppe to the Right…

3a: Druzhba to Almaty

3b: Shumkent to Tashkent

3c: Tashkent (I) 

3d: Bukhara

3e: Bukhara to Samarkand

3f: Samarkand

3g: Samarkand to Urgench

3h: Khiva

3i: Tashkent (II)

3j: Tashkent to Moscow

3k: Moscow (I)

3l: Moscow (II)

3m: Moscow (III)

3n: Konotop to Varna



16th August, 2002 – Tashkent, Uzbekistan

We were awakened by the cock crowing, the sun streaming into our large white room and the clunk clunk of waggons being shunted in the nearby railway yard. Outside on the table Mrs. Arislanova had prepared a veritable feast which we heartily tucked into along with our hosts. Such are the things that travel is made for!

“My father will take the car and show you around the museums today,” said Azis over plov.

“Well, if he's not too busy...”

“No, no, no! You are my guests and besides, I like to look around museums!” he said with a twinkle in his eye.

“But we have a problem,” said I. According to the guidebook we were required to register with OVIR (the Office of Visas and Registration) within twenty-four hours of arriving in Uzbekistan and having not stayed at a hotel, we hadn't done so yet. And having had a taste of Uzbeki officialdom already, we didn't want to take any chances.

“No problem,” said Azis, “we know where the OVIR office is. We shall come with you.”

So after breakfast, off we went, first to the OVIR office where we waited for half an hour and were then told to pay twenty dollars each for a piece of paper that we suspected we didn't even need. We decided to risk it and having wasted everybody's time, continued with the Arislanovis touring the sights of Uzbekistan's fair capital. First up, we went into the suburbs, down some small streets and after having to ask directions several times and backtrack a little, we pulled up outside the Museum of Decorative and Applied Arts, which is situated in the house of a rich nineteenth century Russian merchant who had a passion for Islamic art.

The place was marvellous. Stunning rooms, every inch, nook and cranny decorated with colourful geometric patterns, and all preserved perfectly. And as the name suggests, nowadays the house is also a museum, and there were some fine artefacts on display – carpets, furniture, pottery – that sort of thing, plus a well-stocked souvenir shop where I stocked up on some good quality and unusual souvenirs.

tashkent07  tashkent08

The Museum of Decorative and Applied Arts

Our next stop was the History Museum of Uzbekistan by the Mustakillik but this alas, was closed, so we moved onto the Art Museum of Uzbekistan, a big building full of largely non-descript paintings and sculptures. There was however, one very interesting floor dedicated to arts from around the world which had some great pieces, pride of place, (in my humble opinion), going to the Staffordshire teapot, (the Lowlander preferred the Delft stuff though). “I come here a lot,” said father, “spending hours looking at the paintings and objects.” Which is what museums are for, and although we were not overly impressed with the exhibits, I for one, was glad that someone was getting joy out of the establishment.

After the Art Museum, Azis was dropped off at work and Mr. Arislanov took us to a restaurant where we were treated to a fine meal of shashlik. Over eating, our host explained that his business was restaurants and that this was one of three that he managed and had some sort of stake in. I was impressed, from physics lecturer to restaurateur, quite a change, but one that he seemed to have more than coped with. “Can you boys look after yourselves for the rest of the day?” he asked. We certainly could. There was somewhere that we very much wanted to see.

Way back in Korea, you might remember that I had climbed the Seoul Tower and had been treated to a less-than-impressive smog-filled view of the city. Well, also in that Korean cupola had been a series of photographs of other tall towers in the world, and amongst them I'd come across a very blurred and faded photograph of the 'Tashkent Tower' which according to the caption, stands at 375 metres high. 375 metres! Do you realise how tall that is? The CN Tower, the world's tallest comes to 553 metres, whilst the Eiffel Tower is a paltry 300. Yes indeed, this was one of the world's Top Ten tallest structures. And it was in Tashkent! We had to go!

Luckily, getting there proved to be not a problem. The city authorities had recently opened a brand new metro line that ran right past the tower and very fine and very Soviet was it in every way, except that these new ornate stations had a nationalist rather than a socialist theme to them. We were impressed anyway, and at least it was a sign of Uzbekistan achieving something since 1991, although it didn't really seem to speak of a new order. Like virtually everything else in Tashkent, it was state built, owned and operated and unlike in Eastern Europe or China where the private sector is really burgeoning and taking over, here one just gets the feeling that the name USSR has just been swapped for 'Republic of Uzbekistan' and the only other thing to have changed is the motif. I hope that I am wrong about this, but Uzbekistan seemed to be neither democratic nor capitalist despite her assertions to the contrary, and with old Soviet hack Karimov in charge, I fail to foresee that changing much in the future either.

And 'future' is what the Tashkent Tower smacked of. Or at least a future straight out of Thunderbirds or 2001: A Space Odyssey. A graceful central tower supported by four gigantic 'legs', it was a proud Soviet boast of the great advances that Central Asia was making.

tashkent10 The Western Imperialist spy came across the latest Soviet rocket

And inside the revolving restaurant it was the same story. With a padded red leather bar and huge plants made out of pieces of coloured blown glass, it had sixties cool written all over it. One could just imagine Sean Connery absailing from the window in order to catch the SPECTRE agent in one of the early Bond films, so retro was the vibe. We revelled in it anyway as we drank tea. And sweated. Because the air con was as defunct as the Soviet Union that produced it.

tashkent11 Ground control to Major Tom!

And the view too. Stretched out before us was a vast forest, or so it seemed, so green and low-rise is Tashkent. To be fair, I found it a very pleasant city indeed; ordered, clean, leafy and relaxing. If it wasn't for all the official hassle, (we'd been asked for our passports so many times that I've not even bothered recording it), then it would definitely be a place that I'd be planning to return to.

tashkent09 Tashkent panorama

After the tower we decided to go to the railway station to retrieve our luggage and catch our pre-booked train onwards to Bukhara. Upon reaching that said station however, something most unexpected happened.

“Mr. Pointon! Mr. Pointon!”

At first I thought that it was our 'friend' who'd wanted to help us buy tickets the day before. I ignored him and walked on.

“Mr. Pointon! Remember me?” Remember him? No, not clearly, although the face did seem vaguely familiar.

“Mr. Pointon! I'm from the bank, in Hotel Uzbekistan!”

I stopped. No, it was not our 'friend'. Indeed, it was the friendly clerk from the hotel bank. But what did he want?

“I remember now.”

“Mr. Pointon, we're so sorry, so very sorry. This is yours!” He thrust a carrier bag towards me. I looked inside. It was full of money! This looked fishy. The Lowlander agreed.

“What's this?”

“Your money Mr. Pointon! That you changed yesterday. We've been searching for you everywhere, but you weren't registered at any hotel. You did buy a ticket though, for a train to Bukhara departing this evening. We've been waiting for hours, hoping to catch you!”

“Wait up a minute! You gave me the money yesterday. Lots of it!” (There'd been almost a carrier bag full then as well.)

“Lots yes, but not all Mr. Pointon. We made a mistake, here's the difference. We're so sorry.”

We however, were wary. This was all a bit too strange for our liking. Would we be given money, and then soon afterwards arrested in some drug-dealing or mafia scam? Despite the fact that the clerk had been friendly, we didn't want to become anyone's carrier pigeons for dirty money.

“What should we do?” I asked the Lowlander.

“Be careful,” said he.

“Perhaps it is our money?” I said. “Although I'm sure that we counted it afterwards.”

“I'm not so sure that we did. But this might be a trap. We need a witness.”

An official witness. But whom? There is however, one thing in Uzbekistan that there is no shortage of.


Officer Bobomurodov of the Republic of Uzbekistan Police Force was a man of limited intelligence who definitely did not want to be mixed up in affairs concerning foreign tourists, a bag of hard cash and the chief of O'zbekiston Milliy Banki (Uzbekistan National Bank) Hotel Uzbekistan Branch. These however, were persons of importance and so he had little choice in the matter. We led the policeman and bank representatives, (the clerk and his irate boss), into the station cafe, sat down and got them to explain the situation fully in Uzbeki and English. They then committed their names and signatures to my little blue notebook in case of future difficulties whilst I checked IDs and then we received a carrier bag full of Uzbeki sum. “We're so sorry,” said Mr. Ulugbek Zakirov, the manager. “But please,” he added, “if you are in Tashkent again and you need to change money, remember 'Uzbekistan National Bank'!”

Don't worry, sir. We were not likely to forget!

tashkent12 Would you trust this man…? (The one on the right I mean…)

Boarding the train, we felt strange. Officer Bobomurodov, anxious to protect these tourists that he was now unfortunately involved with, waved us off with urges to keep an eye on our money. This time though, we had First Class tickets which meant only two in a compartment. We spread our baggage out luxuriously and then made some hilarious photos with our thick wads of cash. Our heads however, were reeling. We'd only been in the country for two days and already more had happened to us than in the previous (not uneventful) month in China. A scamming taxi driver, arrest on the Underground, the entry of Azis, friendship and gifts off the Director of the National Railway Museum, a night in the home of an Uzbeki businessman, unparalleled bureaucracy, passport checks at every turn, and now being presented with a carrier bag full of cash outside the railway station by a bank manager! Argh! We couldn't cope with it all.

With a compartment to ourselves however, the train ride was both pleasant and peaceful. Soviet trains are the finest that I've ever travelled on. Being fatter than all others, the bunks are actually long enough to lie upon, and what's more, each coach comes equipped with a (coal-fired) samovar at the end by the attendant's cabin, from which one may extract boiling water for cups of tea. Initially we'd used mineral water bottles with their tops sawn off for our brews, but this had proved impractical as they were too hot to hold. Instead, we now used an old jar that had once contained our milk powder to hold very satisfying cuppas which we supped in between countless games of cards, backgammon and five-dice.

Five-dice? Yes, I've mentioned that several times already, but forgotten to explain what I mean by it. Reader, I do profoundly apologise. Five-dice was the Lowlander's solution to our increasing aversion to backgammon, brought on by over-playing. In it, one has five dice (surprise, surprise) which one throws, trying to get ones and fives, (one being worth 100 points and five, 50). Getting trebles is the most highly desired though, (three twos = 200, through to three fives = 500, but the best of all, treble one = 1000). Ok, so it's not the most intellectual or strategy-based game ever invented, but it kept us occupied many an hour.

And travelling First Class, we got free food (plov), a teapot, (no need for the jar this trip), and no fellow passengers. It was bliss as the train and dice rolled onwards through the night, carrying us, like countless travellers before, on the old Silk Road towards Central Asia's holiest city: Bukhara.

tashkent13 Loadsamoney!

Next part: 3d: Bukhara

1 comment:

  1. Wow, you guys are gangsta! You'll need one of those money counting machines for the next trip! :)